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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vines and Branches, Tigers and Strawberries

“I am the true vine. ..” John 15:9
A Sermon in Celebration of the life of Gail C. MacNeil – June 25, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

If you woke me up in the middle of the night out of a sound sleep and asked me in one word to describe Gail MacNeil, I would immediately say, ‘Courage’. I suspect no one in this church would disagree with that. It is an undeniable truth: Gail was the very embodiment of courage. I often called her my ‘North Star of Courage’.

She was also gracious and generous, kind and thoughtful. And, she was loyal – she loved her friends and family with a fierce, bold, uncompromising love. To be loved by Gail MacNeil was to be truly loved – and, the more of a character you were, the more odd or unique or individual you were, the more she seemed to love you. But, no one in this church would know whatever it is I’m talking about. (Right.)

When Gail made a connection with you, you stayed connected. I suppose this is why she left this particular gospel passage marked in her bible. Gail made many arrangements before she died, a kindness and consideration which her family has come to deeply appreciate in these past few days, but we never did get around to selecting the particular passages she wanted read today. I found this marked in the bible at her bedside:

Jesus said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman.” That would be Vine Dresser in American English. The image of a vine and branches is a wonderful image of Gail’s family and friends. Everyone in this room is connected to Gail in some way that also, mysteriously, connects us to each other. The network of friendships Gail created was nothing less than amazing.

When you consider it for more than a moment or two, looking at Gail’s network of friends is a bit like watching the way a grape vine branches off in various ways and yet still stays connected to the same source. That was how Gail fashioned her life and her love. Unless, of course, you crossed her, and then you would get what I called “the face.” She could stop you cold in your tracks with just one look, couldn’t she?

I’ll have more to say about this image of vine and branches in a moment, but first, I want to let three people come forward to tell you their stories about their connections to Gail. I invite into the lectern her dear friend Mr. Ken Aitchinson who will speak for so many of you who were her friends, followed by her daughters Karen and Jocelyn, who will speak on behalf of their family.

Note: Here followed a wonderful, loving testimony. I will try to get transcripts and post them here shortly.

I want to return to the idea of vines and branches. It’s not just grapes that grow on vines. Strawberries do, as well. Which brings me to the first reading we heard this morning – about Tigers and Strawberries, by which I want to speak of Gail’s courage.

Several months before she died, Gail happened on this book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Gail recommended it highly to me, but I confess I didn’t start reading it until after she died. It was hard not to miss this passage, as she had underlined it and marked it.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was giving me a message in it, and, as unusual as it is, I simply had to include it today because I think there is a message in it for us all.

At one point in the last 48 hours of Gail’s life, she raised her hands to heaven almost as high as she raised her voice and said, “Take me Lord, I’m ready. I’ve fallen, Lord, help me.” Now, you might hear the report of that incident and be tempted to say to yourself, ‘Ah ha, I knew it. No one could be that strong. Gail lost her courage at the end, after all.”

And, I would say to you, “Not so.” Gail did not lose her courage. Rather, in that moment of saying, “Lord, I’ve fallen,” Gail was making a statement not of fear, but of faith. Gail had learned to fall. No longer was life a problem to be solved, but rather, a mystery to be lived. At that moment, I believe she was surrendering to The Mystery.

Over the past 10.5 years, she had found herself on the side of the cliff, holding onto a branch. Above her was her old nemesis, the tiger of ovarian cancer. Below her was the tiger of metastasis – first to her abdomen and then to her lungs.

There were other tigers who had lurked about over the past 10.5 years: Chemo. Clinical drug trials. Symptom management. But, in that moment, in her bed, holding on to the branch, she faced a new tiger: Immanent death.

Gail held onto the branch for dear life while she did the hard work of transforming her hope for a cure to hope in the resurrection. She transformed her hope for a life without ovarian cancer to the hope of life eternal. She also came to understand that the branch she held onto had an identity: it was you – her beloved husband, Dave, her daughters, Jocelyn and Karen, her granddaughters, Skyler, LiLi and Mia, her sisters, Pippa and Jacky, and friends – and that she must let go of that branch and take hold of the Vine – The True Vine named Jesus.

And suddenly, a strawberry appeared in her midst. It was the gift of life, which never tasted sweeter. So sweet, it made her want to hold on for more. So sweet, she knew that life had meaning and value and worth beyond her knowing, beyond the telling.

I believe that you – the branches, and Jesus – the True Vine, were the source of her strength, which allowed her to hold on. I believe it was the tigers and strawberries in her life that were the very source of her amazing, inspiring courage.

All that being said, I also believe that Gail’s greatest act of courage was to enter the great mystery of falling; for it was in falling that she gained that which means the most: she was given back her life even as she was losing it.

One last thing – a few words to Gail’s spirit. Gail, I finally have summoned the courage to tell you that you were wrong about one thing. Your favorite song from your beloved Beatles was “All you need is love.” The words to that song carried you through some of the most difficult days of the last 10.5 years.

Well, Gail, I want to tell you this: if love is all you need, you’d be alive today. Because while we know that you loved us, fiercely, boldly, and courageously – we want you to know that we also loved you right back, with all the fierce, bold, courageous love we could muster.

I’m going to miss you dear friend. We all are. Your light here on earth was so bright, it’s already a bit dark here without you. So, when we look up to the night sky and see a brightly shining star, we’ll know that it’s you – still lighting our way – burning brightly with a fierce, bold love.

You’ll always be our North Star of Courage. Amen.


Fran said...

God grant her peace and rest and light.

And to you, her family and her friends - my prayers for your peace, healing and consolation.

RFSJ said...


You are such a gifted preacher. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for being there for your parish and for Gail.


Jim said...

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.


David@Montreal said...


poetess and priest
living blessing to the church
what a wonderful gift you gave Gails family and friends in your homily.
you literally moved me to tears- once again
thank-you Elizabeth


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you all for your kind notes.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Resurrection in the face of loss; that's what it's all about, ain't it? I am grateful there are people like Gail in your life who help you to see that, and that you share their lives with us.

Holly said...

What an incredibly beautiful tribute to a life well-lived and a death well-died. May you, Gail, her family and friends all be held in the arms of our Loving Lord.

Bill said...

Elizabeth, I had quite a few people come up to me after the recessional and say what a beautiful service it had been. It was obvious to all just how close you had been to Gail.